Losing Faith

Dallas Area Interfaith wants to give the city's poor and disenfranchised a voice in politics. But all critics see is another grab for power.

Leos became the swing vote that killed the after-school funds. As a result, Carranza and others say, Interfaith is targeting her for defeat when she runs for re-election this spring. Shortly after the school board voted against awarding Interfaith programs $340,000, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help who is very active in Interfaith wrote to the DISD administration, requesting a list of financial contributors to the campaigns of all the Anglo trustees. The point was not lost on the already hostile board members.

"Leos has been like a breath of fresh air," Carranza says. "We've had our differences, but at least she comes to our community and listens to the parents and meets regularly with PTA presidents and SCE committee chairs. If going against Interfaith is the worst thing she's done as my representative, I'll still vote for her. I see a lot of good."

Interfaith, for its part, denies seeking to unseat board members such as Leos. "We don't target candidates," says lead organizer Maribeth Larkin. "Our agenda of issues is our candidate."

Trustee Lynda McDow has also felt the sting from the way Interfaith does business. Last year, when Interfaith started its full-court press on board members to commit funds to after-school programs, its members would show up at every board meeting, whether it pertained to Interfaith's programs or not. They buttonholed each trustee, asking them whether they would support Interfaith's after-school programs. They gave them exactly 30 seconds to respond.

McDow's response never wavered: "The schools in my district are very needy and have been neglected by the district. My constituents feel they didn't have enough support for their day-time efforts--for education during 8 and 3."

Last winter, a woman McDow knew and respected from her district asked her to meet once again with Interfaith members. McDow told her she would come only if the woman promised she would be allowed ample time to state her position. The woman gave McDow her word that she would.

When McDow showed up, an Interfaith leader--a teacher from a local school--started to lobby McDow intensely. But the woman who brought McDow to the meeting gave the trustee ample time to respond--much to the Interfaith leader's displeasure, McDow would later learn.

Some time later, the woman phoned McDow in tears. "She told me she had a burden she had to get off her chest," McDow recalls. "She said she was supposed to follow a script that morning and hadn't, and the teacher reprimanded her for not being hard enough on me.

"And they call themselves Christians?"

Foster Elementary School worked with Interfaith for a year, then voted to sever its relationship. Located in Northwest Dallas, Foster is severely overcrowded, and the overwhelming majority of students are economically disadvantaged. There are 1,350 students in pre-K through 5th grade, and 97 percent of them qualify for free lunch.

When an Interfaith organizer first approached Foster Principal Ruth Wilson almost two years ago, he talked to her about helping her school secure funds to expand her after-school program, which at that time consisted of two teachers and an assistant who tutored children. No principal would turn away an offer of more money for the kids, but Wilson says she didn't realize what she was buying into.

"As they pursued the after-school money, they started asking us to come to meetings throughout the city," Wilson says. "They talked about job training, which was of great interest to our parents. But when it came time to hand out the jobs, our parents weren't eligible, because they didn't speak English. They should have been up-front about it. Every time we turned around there was another meeting for their agenda, which was good, but ultimately didn't impact our community. Many of our families aren't eligible to register to vote."

Supporting Interfaith initiatives was zapping the energy of her teachers and parents, many of whom were fully extended as it was. Wilson and her staff were already in the throes of turning the school around academically. Many teachers came in at 6:30 a.m., and others stayed to 6 p.m. to help their students. They were also providing English classes for parents at night. The efforts at Foster paid off. They were recently recognized by Texas Monthly as a four-star school--one of only four in the district. The criterion is that the school have a passing rate on the TAAS test in the top 15 percent of schools with a similar percentage of disadvantaged students.

"Supporting Interfaith was taking away our energy from our main focus--educating the children," says Wilson, who is now principal at Marsh Middle School, which she also expects to turn around--without the help of Interfaith. "It got to the point it wasn't working for us at Foster. This past spring, the School Centered Education Council [a campus-based committee of parents and teachers who make policy decisions] voted not to have any more dealings with Interfaith. They decided the school should not be used as a vehicle to support an agenda that did not impact our families--even if it meant losing after-school programming funds."

While the Anglo school board trustees criticize Interfaith's tactics as manipulative and Machiavellian, their own behavior has not been above reproach. Interfaith leaders complain they can't even get a straight answer from Kathleen Leos on why she voted for after-school funding two years ago, then turned around and voted against it this year.

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